Mary J. Blige’s ‘Escape’ From Her Difficult Upbringing

Mary J. Blige is a Grammy-winning icon with a quintessential rags-to-riches story. The “Family Affair” singer has been brutally honest over the years about the struggles she’s faced throughout her life and how she was able to survive her youth.

Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige | Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Mary J. Blige’s childhood

Mary J. Blige grew up primarily in the Schlobohm housing projects in Yonkers, New York. She experienced extreme poverty and violence at the height of the crack epidemic, and as a result, had to grow up very fast.

Eventually, Blige began suffering abuse herself — sexual abuse as a child, and physical abuse as a young adult. She was in a tumultuous relationship with Jodeci singer K-Ci for several years that was often violent. When she was a teenager and young adult, Blige and her friends began to turn to coping mechanisms to help them dissociate from their reality and the daily life they were living.

Blige reflected on her childhood and teen years in the 2021 documentary Mary J. Blige’s My Life. “Growing up in an environment like that, there were so many things that could happen to a little girl,” she lamented. “You just turned to anything that can numb you from feeling sad, from feeling depressed, from feeling hatred, from feeling self-hate, just so much. So you turn to substance abuse; you turn to whatever makes you feel good.”

Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige | Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Singing was Mary J. Blige’s ‘escape’ from her life

While drinking and drugs came after she had grown into adolescence, Blige had other ways of getting away from her reality when she was a child. She looked up to her mother, a hardworking woman with a love for singing despite facing physical abuse and other hardships. She passed on her love for singing to her daughter: according to Blige, her mother recalled her singing at age 3, before she could even remember having a love for music.

“Singing was the escape for me,” Blige said honestly. “Singing made me forget that we were struggling so much. It just made me forget that iI was going through what I was going through. Even as a little girl, I had insecurities and I was always blue and always sad, but singing made me feel free. And that’s what I had. That’s what I held onto.”

The first song Blige ever heard — and the one that stuck with her the most — was Roy Ayers’ 1976 hit “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” She was especially affected by the idea of “My life in the sunshine,” given that her situation was anything but sunny. She sampled Ayers’ classic in her 1994 song “My Life,” the title track from her iconic 1994 album of the same name.

Mary J. Blige as Monet Tejada in 'Power Book II: Ghost'
Mary J. Blige as Monet Tejada in ‘Power Book II: Ghost’ | Starz

RELATED: The Song That ‘Cracked Open’ Mary J. Blige As a Child and Inspired Her Passion For Music

Mary J. Blige’s career blew up

Of course, Blige’s love of music took her down a path that she as a child could’ve never dreamed of. One day as a teenager, she recorded a cover of Anita Baker’s classic ballad “Caught Up in the Rapture” at a recording booth at a mall. The tape eventually found its way into the hands of Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell, and practically overnight, she was a signed recording artist.

To date, Blige has sold over 50 million albums worldwide and earned nine Grammy Awards. She’s secured endorsement deals with different brands and even launched her own products including perfume and, more recently, wine.